Not all online colleges are created equally. It is a relatively new industry and the quality can vary a great deal from school to school. Even if an online program is good, how can you tell? Most schools haven’t been around long enough to establish a solid reputation, let alone gain the credibility of more historic institutions of higher education. Knowing what to look for and how to evaluate what you see can be challenging.
To compare online colleges you need some basic criteria to start with. Depending on your circumstances, some of these may be more or less relevant to you. First ask yourself what you’re looking for in your college experience, then learn as much as you can about each school you’re investigating. Go beyond the online research. Get in touch with faculty and admissions counselors, as well as current students and alumni.
This is always the first place to start. If a school isn’t properly accredited, that should be a big warning sign. You’re going to have problems transferring credits to other colleges and universities, as well as having your degree recognized by future employers.
Verify that any online school is approved by a legitimate accrediting organization. You can do some additional vetting and double check that the accrediting agency is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. You will also usually be safe if the school is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, or DETC.
Your best bet is a school that is accredited by a regional association. If you’re comparing two different online colleges and one has regional accreditation, a degree from that school will be much more valuable.
Schedules and Requirements
Part of the appeal of online education is the flexibility of the schedule and the variety of means with which class is delivered. Some programs are entirely online, while others are hybrids with a requirement of some physical attendance in classrooms. Some allow students to work at their own pace, while others have more structure and consistent deadlines. Many online courses include a schedule of exams and live virtual lectures, some of which are just as interactive as physical classrooms.
If you’re looking at a school with hybrid classes, be certain that you can meet the attendance requirements. How far away is the school from where you live? Even if class is only once a week, you need to make sure you can attend. Also look at the exam schedule. Are exams given online or do you need to show up at a physical classroom or testing center?
Also find out as much as you can about the quality of the degree programs being offered. If you know you want to study computer programming, check out the classes that make up that major. Do they make sense for an education in computer programming? Are they classes that would interest you, maybe even inspire you?
Because these important factors can vary so widely from program to program, make sure you understand the schedule and requirements and whether they fit with you. This will help you narrow your list of prospective schools.
Just as the quality of online colleges can vary, so do admissions practices. Some schools only require you to sign up, start paying tuition, and you’re ready to go. Others have a more lengthy application process, but usually not as intensive as traditional colleges.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but in many cases, a stringent application process means the school has competitive admissions or higher academic standards. Don’t just assume this! You still want to look deeper into the school’s programs, as stated above. The important thing is to make sure you understand the application process and know whether or not you can fulfill it.
Some online programs are completely independent and hands-off, but most resemble traditional classes to some extent. You will have lectures to listen to, texts to read and papers to write. What if you have questions or need extra help?
See if the instructors offer virtual office hours or other means of contact—at the very least, an email address. Also find out if the school offers tutoring or allows student study groups. You may think you’re an independent student who can go it alone, but you’ll appreciate those support services when you need them.
Most online colleges will also provide you with means of contact beyond an email address. In order to handle administrative matters, including admissions and billing, you’ll want to have a phone number for the school’s administrative offices. If a school can’t provide this, you may have a hard time getting in contact in the future.